LVIV, Ukraine – Uninterrupted by a Russian blockade and relentless bombardment, the key port of Mariupol still stands firm, a symbol of the fierce Ukrainian resistance that thwarted the Kremlin’s invasion plans.
More than six weeks into the Russian siege, Ukrainian troops continue to fight vastly superior Russian forces in fierce battles amid the ruins of what was once a bustling city on the Sea of Azov coast.
The Ukrainian struggle against overwhelming odds scuttled Moscow’s designs, tying up large Russian forces and delaying the start of a planned Russian offensive into eastern Ukraine’s industrial heartland, the Donbass. The Kremlin hopes an attack in the east could reverse the battlefield’s fortunes for Russia after a humiliating failure in its bid to quickly storm Ukraine’s capital kyiv.
Mariupol has been a key target for Russia since its invasion began on February 24. Capturing the city would allow Moscow to establish a land corridor to Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula which Russia annexed in 2014 and would deprive Ukraine of a major port and prized industrial assets. .
The giant Azovstal steelworks and other industrial facilities were heavily damaged by the fierce Russian bombardment that leveled much of Mariupol, indiscriminately hitting homes, hospitals and other public buildings and killing thousands of people.
Among the victims are around 300 people killed in last month’s Russian airstrike on the Mariupol Drama Theater which was used as a shelter and which had the word ‘CHILDREN’ printed in Russian in huge white letters on the pavement outside to ward off an air attack.
Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko told The Associated Press that at least 21,000 people had been killed in Mariupol with bodies “lying in the streets”. He said the Russians had deployed mobile cremation equipment to Mariupol to methodically dispose of the bodies of victims to conceal evidence of the massacre and prevent international organizations from documenting “the horror for which the Russian military is responsible”. .
The discovery of hundreds of bodies of civilians apparently executed by Russian forces in the suburbs of kyiv after the Russian withdrawal from the region has fueled global outrage and accusations from Ukrainians and the West that Russia is committing crimes of war in Ukraine.
Moscow has deployed fighters from Chechnya, known for their ferocity, to fight street battles in Mariupol. Moscow-backed Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has repeatedly bragged on his messaging app channel that he defeated the Ukrainians in Mariupol, but the fight continued.
Boychenko said several Ukrainian units are still fighting the Russians in Mariupol, including the 36th Marine Brigade, the Azov Regiment, some Interior Ministry troops and border guards.
The Azov Regiment, a seasoned volunteer force widely regarded as one of the most capable units in the country, defends the gigantic Azovstal steelworks which covers an area of nearly 11 square kilometers (over 4.2 square miles) . He took advantage of the factory’s extensive network of concrete buildings and underground facilities to fend off continued Russian attacks.
The 36th Marine Brigade held defensive positions at the Azovmash and Zavod Ilyicha factories until it ran out of supplies and ammunition and was desperately trying to break through the Russian blockade earlier this week.
In a post on the brigade’s Facebook page, one of its officers described the heroic resistance of the unit, saying that “for more than a month the marines have been fighting without replenishing supplies of ammunition, food and water”. “The wounded made up nearly half of the brigade’s strength, but those who still had their limbs and were able to walk have returned to duty,” the post said.
Boychenko said some of the marines managed to join the Azov regiment, while others were captured by the Russians. He gave no figures.
The Russian military said Thursday that a total of 1,160 Ukrainian marines have surrendered this week, a claim that could not be independently verified.
As Ukrainian troops continue to offer fierce resistance in Mariupol, fears are growing that enraged Russians may resort to chemical weapons to deal with remaining pockets of resistance at the Azovstal plant and other parts of the city.
Eduard Basurin, a Russian-allied separatist official in eastern Ukraine, appeared to protest on Monday, telling Russian state television that Russian-backed forces should block all exits from the factory, then “use chemical troops to smoke them out”. there.” He later said that no chemical weapons were used.
The Azov regiment claimed on Monday, without providing evidence, that a drone had dropped a toxic substance on its positions but had not inflicted any serious injuries. A Ukrainian defense official said the attack may have involved phosphorus munitions.
Boychenko said about 120,000 pre-war residents of Mariupol, or about 450,000, remain in the city.
Ukrainian authorities said the Russians had blocked aid convoys from reaching Mariupol, depriving it of food, water and electricity since the siege began. Russian troops turned back buses sent to evacuate residents, but around 150,000 were able to flee the city in their own vehicles.
Boychenko said at least 33,500, and possibly as many as 50,000 Mariupol residents were taken to “filtration camps” in the separatist-controlled east before being forcibly sent to areas remote and economically depressed in Russia.
Mariupol has seen communications cut since the siege began, and as the Russians moved to capture sections of the city they launched radio broadcasts to brainwash the populace.
“They unleashed propaganda, telling people that kyiv and other cities were captured and left behind,” Boychenko said.
Continued fighting in Mariupol forced the Russian military to maintain significant numbers of troops in the city, delaying the start of the new planned offensive in eastern Ukraine.
“As long as street fighting continues, Russia cannot withdraw troops from Mariupol and deploy them to other regions, including Donbass,” Oleh Zhdanov, an independent military expert, told AP.
“Ukrainian troops in Mariupol continue to fulfill their main task of diverting Russian forces from other areas. Mariupol remains a major symbol of Ukrainian resistance.”
Follow AP coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine